Sunday, April 5, 2009

Simplicity Sunday

I don't usually blog on Sundays. For some reason, my brain shuts off the blogging function at 11:59 pm on Saturday night and it doesn't usually reactivate until sometime Monday morning. So honestly, I really don't have anything to say on Sundays anyway.

If it wasn't for the BEDA vow I wouldn't even be here. (Now I sound like Dante. "I'm not even supposed to be here today!") 

Because it's Sunday and my mind is in "simplification" mode, I thought it would be fun to think complexly about simplicity. (Go with me on this one.) Finding the simplest way to tell any story is part of the magic involved in getting from idea to finished story (or blog post for that matter).

I like simple things. Typewriters, fountain pens, hard copies of books. Too much complexity is bad for us, I think. It builds up until it overwhelms us and we find ourselves bereft of hope in a world awash in widgets designed to do things for us which we can no longer remember how to do ourselves or recall why we did them in the first place. As it is in life, so it is in writing.

Science has taught us that at the heart of complexity, things begin to simplify once more.

All computers are - at their core - just little switches turning on and off as the 1's and 0's of the programmer's code tell them to. The web page you are looking at is the result of two numbers combined and recombined in nearly infinite patterns to tell the machine you are using what to show you. Adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine are the four nucleotides from which DNA is made. Every DNA helix is a combination of those four "letters" of our genetic alphabet. By combining and recombining these four letters, DNA creates an elegant structure which is unique for each of us. This is why Maureen is different from John, who is different from Hank, who is different from me.

The similarities make us homo sapien, the differences make us who we are. Only four nucleotides are scrambled in seemingly random fashion to the point where each person is truly unique from the other.

A couple days ago I pointed out (and not for the first time) that the great works of our literary canon were written with the same letters as those works which the literary critics consider "lesser". The same twenty-six letters Elmo sings about on Sesame Street go into the creation of every book, every short story, every Twitter post by everyone with words to say whether it be Shakespeare or Wired Magazine.

Even the literary canon -- despite its apparent complexity -- begins to simplify once more as we reach into its DNA.

Think about that: An alphabet of 4 letters can make 6.7 billion unique "words". Mindbogglingly complex, yet so simple at its core that our language cannot quite capture it. So let's bring it back to writing, shall we?

Let us take two somewhat random words from our language: wild and driven.

Our alphabet (the English alphabet for our purposes) has twenty-six letters, which you could also theoretically combine an infinite number of ways. Despite this, the Oxford English Dictionary lists only a little over 172,000 unique letter combinations that form recognizable words. From that impossibly large number of possible combinations, we have extracted only a bit over 172,000 ways of combining letters under the prescribed rules governing our language to actually create meaningful and arguably beautiful results.

From the complexity of a near infinitude of possible combinations of letters, we derive 172,000 possible words. From those 172,000 possible words Shelley selected 25 to create this stanza of his poem. By themselves they are nothing, combined in this way they are poetry. From the complexity of an infinity of choices to the simplicity of a stanza of a poem about the autumn wind.

The trouble with writing is that people try to make it too complex. Load each word with dire portent, as if the future of humanity hangs upon the one that follows it. Too much complexity and our minds freeze and we're back to our little boat, adrift in a sea of needless complexity.

The magic of writing is derived from weaving a spell of words, a web to capture the imagination of your reader. Each strand of the spell is created from the correct words, the simplest words available to tell your story. Mark Twain once said that "the difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the difference between lighting and a lightning bug." Listen to Twain. He was the master of discerning the difference between lightning and bug.

People push and pull against the strictures of the medium -- find them too complex. Its and It's, adverbs are bad, participles shouldn't dangle and neither should prepositions, and what the hell is a gerund anyway? OMG!! But it's the structure of our language that allows us to think the simple thoughts within a complex matrix.

Without structure, your infinite letter combinations would not make the least bit of sense. Neither Twain nor Shelley would be able to make something out of it and our language would be worse than useless.

This is what rules do; they reign in the chaos. The mores of our language; spelling, syntax, noun, verb, adjective, punctuation, etcetera, allows language to be something more than an inarticulate jumble of letters. So from nature that we derive the guidance we need to follow with language. All existence as we know it, pared down to just four nucleotides, a finite alphabet with infinite possible combinations arranged together like our poem into an elegant simplicity to create all of us.

Stripping away the rules wouldn't make our lives easier, it would make them more complex. Anarchy would giving rise to greater variety, yes, but varieties and mutations such that we wouldn’t be able to reproduce ourselves and our species -- or our literature -- would collapse under the weight of its own complexity. Despite the grumblings of you and millions of writers before you, it isn’t the complexity of our language that vexes you; it’s the enforcement of the simplicity necessary to keep it comprehensible.

So when you sit down at your keyboard to write, whether it's a blog post, a novel, or a poem, keep in mind that the simplicity of the medium is your greatest advantage. The constraints of our language are not walls, but guidelines to get you to the next right word.

Simplicity is beautiful in its complexity, isn't it? May all your words be lightning instead of lighting bugs.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).